Line-Item Veto: Why the U.S. President Does Not Have This Power

Presidents have long sought—but have been denied—this authority

Woman walks on fountain near U.S. Capitol
Woman Walks on Fountain Near U.S. Capitol. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

In the United States government, the line-item veto is the right of the chief executive to nullify or cancel individual provisions bills—usually budget appropriations bills—without vetoing the entire bill. Like regular vetoes, line-item vetoes are usually subject to the possibility of being overridden by the legislative body. While many state governors have line-item veto power, the president of the United States does not.

The line-item veto is exactly what you might do when your grocery tab runs to $20 but you only have $15 on you. Instead of adding to your total debt by paying with a credit card, you put back $5 worth of items you don’t really need. The line-item veto—the power to exclude unneeded items—is a power that U.S. presidents have long wanted but have just as long been denied.

The line-item veto, sometimes called the partial veto, is a type of veto that would give the president of the United States the power to cancel an individual provision or provisions, called line-items, in spending or appropriations bills without vetoing the entire bill. Like traditional presidential vetoes, a line-item veto could be overridden by Congress.

Currently, forty-four of the 50 U.S. states give their governors some form of line-item veto power; Indiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Vermont are the exceptions.

Pros and Cons

Proponents of the line-item veto argue that it would allow the president to cut wasteful pork barrel or earmark spending from the federal budget. Opponents counter that it would continue a trend of increasing the power of the executive branch of government at the expense of the legislative branch. Opponents also argue, and the Supreme Court has agreed, that the line-item veto is unconstitutional. In addition, they say it would not reduce wasteful spending and could even make it worse.

Historically, most members of the U.S. Congress have opposed a constitutional amendment granting the president a permanent line-item veto. Lawmakers have argued that the power would enable the president to veto their earmark or pork barrel projects they often added to the appropriations bills of the annual federal budget. In this manner, the president could use the line-item veto to punish members of Congress who have opposed his policy, thus bypassing the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, legislators contended. 

History of the Line-Item Veto

Virtually every president since Ulysses S. Grant has asked Congress for line-veto power. President Bill Clinton actually got it but did not keep it long. On April 9, 1996, Clinton signed the 1996 Line Item Veto Act, which had been ushered through Congress by Sens. Bob Dole (R-Kansas) and John McCain (R-Arizona), with the support of several Democrats.

On Aug.11, 1997, Clinton used the line-item veto for the first time to cut three measures from an expansive spending and taxation bill. At the bill's signing ceremony, Clinton declared the selective veto a cost-cutting breakthrough and a victory over Washington lobbyists and special interest groups. "From now on, presidents will be able to say 'no' to wasteful spending or tax loopholes, even as they say 'yes' to vital legislation," he said at the time.

But, "from now on" wasn't for long. Clinton used the line-item veto two more times in 1997, cutting one measure from the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 and two provisions of the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997. Almost immediately, groups aggrieved by the action, including the city of New York, challenged the line-item veto law in court.

On Feb.12, 1998, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia declared the 1996 Line Item Veto Act unconstitutional, and the Clinton administration appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

In a 6-3 ruling issued on June 25, 1998, the Court, in the case of Clinton v. City of New York, upheld the District Court's decision, overturning the 1996 Line Item Veto Act as a violation of the "Presentment Clause," (Article I, Section 7), of the U.S. Constitution.

In its majority opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens, the Court ruled that because the Line-Item Veto Act allowed the president to unilaterally amend or repeal parts of duly enacted laws by using line-item cancellations, it violated the Presentment Clause of the Constitution, which lays out a specific method by which laws passed by Congress are to be enacted. In making this ruling, the court interpreted the Constitution’s silence on the line-item veto as “an express prohibition,” agreeing with historical material that supported the conclusion that laws may only be enacted “in accord with a single, finely wrought and exhaustively considered, procedure,” according to which the entire—rather than parts—of the bill must be approved or rejected by the president.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer contended that the objective of the Act was constitutionally proper and was consistent with powers that the president had held in the past, stating that the Act “does not violate any specific textual constitutional command, nor does it violate any implicit Separation of Powers principle.” He extensively referred to many cases which support the delegation of power by Congress.

In an opinion agreeing with the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy objected to the argument that the Act did not violate principles of the separation of powers and threaten individual liberty, writing that the “undeniable effects” of the Act were to “enhance the President’s power to reward one group and punish another, to help one set of taxpayers and hurt another, to favor one State and ignore another.” Kennedy's concurrence implicitly viewed the Act as a violation of the non-delegation doctrine, a principle expressed in Article One, Section 1 of the Constitution that Congress cannot delegate its legislative powers to other entities, including the president.

By the time the Supreme Court took the power away from him, Clinton had used the line-item veto to cut 82 items from 11 spending bills. While Congress overrode 38 of Clinton's line-item vetoes, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the 44 line-item vetoes that stood saved the government almost $2 billion.

Denied Power to Amend Legislation

The Constitution's Presentment Clause cited by the Supreme Court spells out the basic legislative process by declaring that any bill, before being presented to the president for his signature, must have been passed by both the Senate and the House.

In using the line-item veto to delete individual measures, the president is actually amending bills, a legislative power granted exclusively to Congress by the Constitution, the Court ruled. In the Court's majority opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote: "There is no provision in the Constitution that authorizes the president to enact, to amend or to repeal statutes."

The court also held that the line-item veto violated the principles of the separation of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the federal government. In his concurring opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote that the "undeniable effects" of the line-item veto were to "enhance the President's power to reward one group and punish another, to help one set of taxpayers and hurt another, to favor one State and ignore another."

View Article Sources
  1. United States. Cong. Line Item Veto Act of 1996." 104th Cong., Washington: GPO, 1996. Print.

  2. Clinton Poised to Use Line-Item Veto for 1st Time.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 11 Aug. 1997.

  3. Remarks on Signing Line Item Vetoes of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 and the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 and an Exchange With Reporters.” The American Presidency Project, UC Santa Barbara, 11 Aug. 1997.

  4. Pear, Robert. “U.S. Judge Rules Line Item Veto Act Unconstitutional." The New York Times, 13 Feb. 1998..

  5. "Clinton v. City of New York."

  6. "Item Veto Constitutional Amendment."

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Longley, Robert. "Line-Item Veto: Why the U.S. President Does Not Have This Power." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Longley, Robert. (2023, April 5). Line-Item Veto: Why the U.S. President Does Not Have This Power. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Line-Item Veto: Why the U.S. President Does Not Have This Power." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).